You Need to Stop Making Your Employees Happy

Employee Happiness is not Employee Engagement

Andy Chan
Andy Chan
Aug 15, 2019 · 12 min read

A happy employee is not necessarily an engaged employee.

Albeit used interchangeably, employee happiness and employee engagement are both overlapping terms used in workplace culture. Here’s why: a happy employee can contribute to a positive workplace culture, which can create high levels of engagement. In the same vein, engaged employees who are fulfilled and satisfied with their jobs may report higher levels of happiness than their disengaged peers.

Since they are so similar, business leaders often view happiness and engagement as the same, hence resulting in organizations approaching employee happiness as an objective when looking to decrease attrition and improve productivity.

Happiness is the goal and the initiatives to support it follow.

The problem is, while the goal is welcoming, focusing solely on employee happiness can prove to be counterintuitive — at a significant cost to any business.

What’s the Difference?

To make it clear, employee happiness and employee engagement often co-exist — having one begets the other. However, any business must understand the distinct difference between the two and the impact that they make in the business.

By definition, happiness is an abstract feeling. It is predicated on an infinite number of external and internal factors. In that vein, employee happiness is virtually impossible to measure without the use of neurotechnologies. Unless you have a tool that is directly wired up to your employee’s brain, using just a survey can prove to be a biased and inaccurate instrument.

Even if you are not trying to measure their happiness, it is a fact that happy employees are great.

But what are they happy about?

When a happy employee lacks engagement, they are simply unproductive. They may, for example, enjoy the companionship of their colleagues and the conversations with them. They may also love the perks like free breakfast and Friday nights out.

They are happy — but happy to be working for their takehome.

A disengaged but happy employee is simply an underperforming employee. Regardless of how wide his smile is every day, being unproductive, lazy and unwilling to innovate is dangerous to any business, especially for those with limited hiring resources.

Engaged employees are entirely different: by definition, to be engaged is to have your attention attracted or occupied.

An engaged employee is a superstar.

They are emotionally committed and invested in their work, caring about what they do and the overall purpose of the business. They understand how they come in and how they can contribute to the bigger picture.

Engaged employees are employees who treat your success as their own. These are employees who would stay at the office till 10 p.m. to help you debug. These are employees who would continue doing their content marketing on the weekends. These are employees who would call up their customers to check-in after helping them on a customer issue.

Engaged employees never cut corners.

Contrary to what many believe, engaged employees may not necessarily be ‘happy’ — in fact, they might be more stressed, simply because they care.

These engaged employees are fulfilling two core components:

  • Affiliation — your employee feels like they are a ‘part’ of the organization, which is measurable (e.g. your employee feels proud that he’s working for your company)
  • Effort — they are exceeding expectations and going above and beyond what’s required of them, which is measurable as well (e.g. your employee would do more than what’s expected them at their job)

Often misused together with employee happiness, some organizations attempt to drive job satisfaction — an entirely different ball game centered around tangible things.

They are satisfied not because of their job, but because of what they get out of their job.

“What’s in it for me?”

This can range from a high salary to other monetary benefits. Other perks like accommodation, free lunch (which is what Atlassian does) or wellness benefits fall under this category.

Hence, a satisfied employee may not necessarily be engaged. More often than not, satisfaction is placed at a high pedestal that perks are introduced without insofar a consideration of the actual engagement.

Typically, it is regarded as a ‘quick fix’ — the common jibe is at companies buying foosball tables and bean bags (in emulation of vibrant startups), when in fact all that did was decorate.

After all, research has shown that perks are typically short-lived boosters. If all other elements of the job remain unchanged, the employee will simply become dissatisfied again (which means they will be disengaged). It is simply an inevitable outcome of the hedonic treadmill.

Is it impossible for perks to boost engagement?

The reality is that perks are great, but they are not enough. Only a company that looks inwards from the leadership to the culture can utilize the perks in tandem with engagement initiatives.

Simply put, employees have their core requirements, but bumping salaries won’t lead to any positive impact on business results.


The Three-Pronged Structure on Culture

Here’s something amazing: you can drive engagement, happiness, and satisfaction all at once.

The objectives are clear:

  1. “I’m engaged at my company” — your employee needs to believe in your core mission and go beyond expectations to do tasks that fulfill it.
  2. “I’m happy at my job” — this is an internal thing that demands personal effort: you need to give them the right entitlements, foster positivity, and open communication as well as build amicable co-worker relationships.
  3. “I’m satisfied with my job” — it’s all about the perks and benefits, this is a deep HR issue

Ideally, your focus on the three portions would be in a 70:20:10 ratio. The focus is on deploying self-awareness as a company and then fulfilling the more tangible needs that the employees are usually more aware of (e.g. they feel like they are not paid enough, they think that if they work till late there should be some kind of appreciation).

The main focus is always on engagement.

Driving Employee Engagement

Engaged employees have fierce loyalty and a deep sense of commitment in their work and the organization. Their emotional investment is what keeps them motivated to go beyond expectations, even if that seems illogical to people around them.

You must understand engagement stems from culture, and culture is insanely difficult to build after years of operating without a good one — the reality is that it would be easier to build a culture at an SMB than a Fortune 500 company.

The key to driving employee engagement is a lot on understanding the employees and constant experimentation (i.e. think lean). The only way to improve engagement is to measure what works and what doesn’t.

You need data.

  • Do a 15–5. Create a weekly employee pulse survey that captures their feelings, emotions, and facts regarding their work and circumstances. The survey should take no more than 15 minutes and the overall result should be compiled into a report that takes no more than 5 minutes to read.
  • Do a weekly check-in. Go personal with this and start conversations with employees every time you catch them to be available. Whether they are making instant coffee at the pantry or on the lift down to eat lunch, there’s always an opportunity to check-in with them and ask how they are doing.

With data, an actionable plan can be solved.

For example: if your employees feel that their strengths are underutilized, you can dig deeper into what they feel their strengths are and test the hypotheses with jobs befitting of their strengths.

If your business as no identity (i.e., you’re just ‘another’ company in the industry), your employee simply doesn’t care about you.

Where is your company headed to? What does it stand for? Your employees won’t be invested in a business that they don’t understand. The key is to communicate the purpose.

Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last, broke it down at a TedxPuget Sound in a simple way: leaders inspire action with emotions and resonation, which therefore leads to ‘start with why’.

“Apple was just another computer company,” Sinek said, “Yet, you’d feel [weird] buying an MP3 player from Dell…even though they are more than qualified to manufacture them.”

Apple did well in communicating its mission to challenge the status quo. Their design and functionalities are crafted in a way that resonates with people at the forefront of experimentation and believers of innovation.

To contribute to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind — the mission statement crafted by Steve Jobs in the 1980s is an attempt to elicit an emotional response. Anyone who believes they are ‘advancing humankind’ (which can mean being smart or innovative) resonates greatly with that, as they understood that Apple is on a mission to do the same as well.

They are making tools that help great people, which makes anyone buying an Apple product feel great.

That’s branding and that was communicated not just externally, but internally as well. Employees at Apple knew what they were trying to do. Even if they were doing frontline at an Apple store, they know that the company is a lot more than just a computer company.

A simple law of diffusion.

Regardless of what your mission and vision are, there must be constant communication to employees on how they are contributing to the overall picture and how significant their contributions are without weighing their workload.

On the macro, feedback is important. The giant, annual performance review to analyze business results and go in with an economics and mathematics angle is what keeps the business accountable to themselves and their board.

On the micro, that’s useless.

There is significance in telling the sales team to ‘ramp up their numbers by 60% to hit next year’s targets’ is great, but that is a macro issue.

Employee engagement is intra-team.

The best way any business can drive engagement in culture is to embed a coaching and continual feedback culture:

  • Did your employee(s) do something great? Performance recognition is scientifically proven to have an impact on business outcomes. Give verbal compliments, follow up with encouragements. The words are already more than enough to go a long way.
  • They need objective criticism. People perform best in environments of adversity. Deliver it with tact and straightforwardness. This way, you can easily know who has a growth mindset and who is stagnant.
  • Make personal connections. Ditch the meeting room and find other ways to a meeting: it could be a coffee at a cafe or a walking meeting with a cup of tea. Skip the workplace and create an environment where you can understand your employees as human beings. The key is to forge a connection that allows the employee to believe that you care and understand her.

The power in keeping all that in continuity is that you build culture from the ground up, one step at the time. Thinking long here allows you to cement this culture in the organization and allow the law of diffusion to come through. When it eventually hits the ceiling of the organization, business results will skyrocket beyond imagination.

Being accountable for every single thing in the team is the best way to sustain authenticity. Combined with transparency, they are both powerful catalysts for driving engagement.

Tell them if you’re facing any problems. Tell them if you need their help. Tell them if you’re falling short and you need a little boost.

Vulnerability is your best tool to create a connection. If something is going wrong, be it in the organization or the team, tell them straight and facilitate two-way communication.

Open communication is so significant.

Leverage on technology to keep the communication going Slack, Microsoft Teams, Chanty or these other alternatives.


IBM’s Three Sphere Experience

IBM researched the employee experience and found that employees interact across ‘three primary spheres’:

  • The Social Sphere — how is your employee communicating and interacting with others at work?
  • The Work Sphere — how do your employees interact with their assignments and work?
  • The Physical Sphere — what kind of interactions do your employees have in the environment (e.g. digital, physical)?
IBM Institute for Business Value’s Report on Designing Employee Experience

These sphere overlap to create unique facets in the employee experience. Companies who put in the effort and drive change through those facets are bound to see business success in employee engagement.

In their words: “Virtually all of us depend to some degree on interaction with others” — humans are undeniably interdependent. Biologically, we survived when we worked together in a community.

When you can foster a strong-knit community within the workplace, you can drive and facilitate a lot of important business factors, such as knowledge sharing and individual employee satisfaction.

Properly designed ergonomics and workplace architecture is a core component in employee experience. While the culture may be great, having differently designed workspaces in the context of its intentions will give a much-needed boost to any initiative.

For example, designing a communal space to facilitate casual group discussions. You could segment a meeting room and design it for sprints, so people know that they don’t run analytical meetings but actual operational sprints in it. You could also dedicate areas for quietude so concentration and flow can occur there for employees who need to do deep work.

The physical environment is not just on furniture and spaces but also on other factors like temperature control, noise, ventilation, and ambient lighting. Even choosing which window your quiet space will be near to is significant.

Weaving the right technologies to the whole culture and employee experience is key to creating a great employee experience.

The way technology has evolved today changed the nature and the way we do our work. From productivity to instant communication, using the right applications and user experience is important.

  • Frictionless UX. We use a plethora of apps and we know what we like best. When your software takes too many clicks or takes 15 seconds to get one task done, decision fatigue and frustration kick in. No one likes using poorly-designed application unless it had the excuse of being a pilot project.
  • Seamless storage. This deserves a spot on its own. Where do your employees go to find that one file they need? How many hurdles do they cross? If there’s sensitive information, is the internal storage structured to be easily accessible by employees?
  • Too much ‘figuring out’. Employees want to spend more time figuring out how to do their jobs than to figure out how to use the company’s technology. If your manuals are way too long, get the tech team on it to downsize and go lean.
  • Accessibility issues. It’s 2019: diversity and inclusivity are everywhere and made a core component in hiring and workplace environments. Is your software capable of adapting to auditory and visual needs? Are they capable of adapting to physical limitations?

How much can your employees influence their work? How much do they understand their work’s overall purpose?

Daniel Pink, the author of Drive, noted that high performance is not due to our biological drive — like our need for dopamine — but in fact due to our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives.

When employees deploy self-awareness and understand how their task fits into the work (and how the work fits into the overall mission and goals), they are much more able to perform. Coupled with relevant knowledge, expertise, access, feedback loops, and mentorship, the employee experience is elevated.

Companies are starting to use internal social platforms to support communication for innovation and knowledge sharing. A lot of events happen on the platform: be it someone connecting to others, not in their department or working together in a cross-department project.

Regardless of what technique or strategy any company uses to drive employee engagement in their company, the intent must be right from the beginning. Employee engagement is not something short-term. Many companies underestimate just how long the culture-building game is.

The length is further increased when the company has never emphasized on culture from day 1; it is insanely difficult to change an internal brand when it has been cemented a long time ago.

The best way to do it is to begin from the top of the hierarchy. When the founders/CEOs work on building culture from their own offices, the law of diffusions comes in to spread it.

Identifying blockages in culture (i.e. managers and directors who are not continuing the cultural shift) and educating or removing them is paramount. When a company is truly committed and understand that it will have profound effects on the business, changing leadership is imperative to carry out the cultural shift.

With the rise of Chief People Officers and Chief Culture Officers, it is clear that there is a movement in building culture in today’s organizations, regardless of their size (e.g. Atlassian is a behemoth).

It is high time HR goes offense and not defense.

Rather than wait till you see talents leaving the company, start jumping in to cut attrition down with just a single fundamental shift.

It’s all offense.


The Human Business

We’re all about the humans in the business.

Andy Chan

Written by

Andy Chan

Founder of Human+Business & the H+B Digest | Leadership Consultant | Content Marketer & Writer | Ex-Startup Co-Founder

The Human Business

We’re all about the humans in the business. We publish authoritative articles on leadership, management and business.

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